New Zealanders need to be more understanding of religion, an expert says, after a Kiwi was jailed yesterday for insulting Buddha in Myanmar.

Yesterday, New Zealander Phil Blackwood was found guilty in Myanmar of offending religion.

This comes after Blackwood and two locals were charged in December for distributing a flyer for their V Gastro Bar, featuring a picture of Buddha wearing headphones.

At court in Myanmar's former capital Yangon yesterday, he and his two co-accused were all sentenced to two years in prison.


Speaking outside court yesterday, Blackwood told reporters he would appeal the decision.

Speaking to Newstalk ZB this morning, Massey University's Professor Peter Lineham said anyone would be "stupid" to insult Buddhism, in a majority Buddhist country.

Mr Lineham said there were about 20 countries of various religions that "very strongly enforce" religious rules and would repress minorities.

"Most of them are Islamic but there are some Christian countries where you would get into severe trouble, for example some orthodox countries and some Catholic countries, are very very tough on religious insults."

Mr Lineham said he did not excuse the "viciousness" that has been shown in Myanmar, and called it "atrocious", but said New Zealanders needed to be more understanding of other cultures' religion.

"I do think we have grown up in a culture where we imagine everything is there to laugh at... but that's not true in other countries and probably it shouldn't be true in our country."

According to Myanmar law, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who try to insult religion through the written word.

Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, has had a number of recent outbreaks of religious violence, with minority Muslims among the targets.


Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Mr Blackwood's sentence was "very disappointing news".

"Obviously his family and friends are going to be very concerned about the verdict?I think a lot of New Zealanders would find it difficult to understand how the penalty that has been meted out can match the offence.

"Particularly when it appears that there was no serious intention to offend. But the decision has been made by the court, and there is now an appeal process underway."

Mr McCully said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been keeping in close contact with Mr Blackwood and his family.

"And we will continue to do that and see how the appeal process goes. Then it will be appropriate perhaps for us to say something further.

"While there is a judicial process under way, other countries, as we do, insist on having respect for their legal system, so that [an approach by Government] is not going to be helpful to him for us to do that."

Prime Minister John Key also said it was not appropriate to make public comments on the sentence while an appeal was underway.

"There has certainly been consular support to the family, making sure that they know their legal rights and that they get legal assistance."

Asked if he would personally raise the issue with the Myanmar Government, he again said he would need to wait to see what the outcome of Mr Blackwood's appeal was.

Labour foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer said the verdict was harsh because Blackwood had admitted he had done something wrong and apologised for it even before he had been told to take down the advertisement for his bar.

It seemed that the judge had not accepted his explanation that he had acted in ignorance and believed he had done it intentionally.

"It does seem also that there has been some very hardline Buddhist monks that have been putting pressure on the judge to give a sentence that is a deterrent and possibly he has been caught up in that."

Mr Shearer said Phil Blackwood had definitely lacked sensitivity in putting out the advertisement "but I think it was a mistake that he made and admits to in innocence rather than anything that was more sinister."

Mr Shearer said that in many ways it had done the Myanmar Government no good because the sentencing was being reported all around the world.

"Myanmar is trying to move into an era of democracy and respect for human rights and it hasn't shown Myanmar up in a good light.

Mr Shearer said he had written the Myanmar ambassador to New Zealand, based in Canberra.

Foreign Minister Murray needed to express his concern at the length of the sentence.

"We have a good relationship with Burma. We're trying to build it but at the same time we need to let them know that human rights and freedom of expression are important principles."

However Mr Shearer thought the prospect of changing the verdict would be more about international and political pressure rather than from Government to Government pressure.